Industrially Farmed Foods Have Lower Nutritional Content

A growing body of research shows the nutritional content of food staples has declined as the use of high-yield industrial farming practices have increased.

  • nutritional content - broken bread in wheat field
    Plant breeders have increased yields in most crops, but this is causing our food’s nutritional content to decline.

  • nutritional content - broken bread in wheat field

The commercially grown vegetables, fruits, and grains that we are eating today have significantly lower nutritional content than these foods had 100 years ago, or even just 30 years ago. We now have solid, scientific evidence of this troubling trend. For example:

  • In wheat and barley, protein concentrations declined by 30 to 50 percent between the years 1938 and 1990.
  • Likewise, a study of 45 corn varieties developed from 1920 to 2001, grown side by side, found that the concentrations of protein, oil, and three amino acids have all declined in the newer varieties.
  • Six minerals have declined by 22 to 39 percent in 14 widely grown wheat varieties developed over the past 100 years.
  • Official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data shows that the calcium content of broccoli averaged 12.9 milligrams per gram of dry weight in 1950, but only 4.4 mg/g dry weight in 2003.

All of this evidence has been assembled and rigorously reviewed by Dr. Donald R. Davis, a now (mostly) retired chemist from the University of Texas.

So what’s causing these declines? The evidence indicates there are at least two forces at work. The first is what agriculture researchers call the environmental “dilution effect.” Davis notes that researchers have known since the 1940s that yield increases produced by fertilization, irrigation, and other environmental means used in industrial farming tend to decrease the concentrations of minerals in those plants. These techniques give growers higher yields, and consumers get less expensive food. But now it appears there’s a hidden long-term cost: food quality.

For example, a study of phosphorous fertilizer on raspberries found that applying high levels of phosphorus caused the yield to double and concentrations of phosphorus to increase in the plants, but meanwhile levels of eight other minerals declined by 20 to 55 percent!

The other force at work is what Davis calls the genetic dilution effect — the decline in nutrient concentration that results when plant breeders develop high-yielding varieties without a primary focus on broad nutrient content. That’s what the studies of wheat, corn, and broccoli confirm.

In fruits, vegetables, and grains, usually 80 to 90 percent of the dry weight yield is carbohydrates — sugars and starches (the last things we need more of in the American diet). Davis says that when breeders (and growers) specifically choose varieties for high yields, they are selecting mostly for the highest amounts of carbohydrates.

Roger Gussiaas
6/22/2009 1:20:09 PM

Industrial farming is giving us less nutritous food. In this world with all of the diversity especially in agriculture, it is impossiable to lay on a blanket statement like this. If this is the case which it is not, then organic farming puts very little back into the land. So we should be able to say organic produce is less nutritous. But I will not say this because of the diversity of farms including organic. There is so many differences between farms, including organic, no-till, irrigated, different crop rotations, different tillage, manure application, etc. I won't and I hope others won't accept a blanket statement like this from Mother Earth News, you are doing a deservice to your readers. I am from Carrington, North Dakota and I will invite any of your readers to my farm. But I also want an invitation to the people that visit me, to see the way they live, thank you, sincerely. Roger Gussiaas

Annette B
6/22/2009 1:08:02 PM

Sorry about the double post. Not sure how that happened... But since I am here again, I would like to add that one manner of producing more food "the old way" (reference to Bruce's concern) is to trade some of this country's love of lawns for a love of nutritious, life-sustaining food. We live in an urban neighborhood with C,C,&R's, and we have replaced half of our lawn with edibles and native plants. Out of respect for our neighbors we have done this with aesthetics and curb appeal in mind. We get many compliments.

Annette B
6/22/2009 12:37:39 PM

Eating these new foods with lower nutrient content has a double affect on the American waistline. It is logical that when we are deficient in vitamins and minerals, our bodies tell us we need to eat more food. And, as the article states, the new foods are higher in sugars and starches so the problem is further exacerbated. Hmmm. A vicious circle if ever I saw one.

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